Severe cuts for overseas scholarships in revised budget

Government scholarships for Malaysian students to study overseas have been slashed in a revised budget announced by Prime Minister Najib Razak last week, as the country suffers from a continued economic downturn, depreciating currency and a global drop in oil prices.

The previous budget for 2016 announced in October 2015 already hit higher education hard but at the time oil prices were around US$48 per barrel. The global price of oil has since shrunk to US$30 to US$35 per barrel, affecting Malaysia’s revenues and leading to a more stringent budget.

Announcing the revised budget on 28 January, Najib said the government’s Public Service Department scholarship programmes for top students – among the most sought after scholarships in the country – would continue.

However, according to the latest figures unearthed by opposition groups, the programme for top students to go overseas has been cut back. Only the top 20 performers in the Malaysian Certificate of Education exam, taken at the end of secondary school, will be able to benefit from the overseas scholarship programme for top students under the revised budget compared to the top 50 performers previously.

Special engineering scholarships for students to go to Japan, South Korea, Germany and France have also been slashed from 300 announced previously to 200 scholarships under the revised budget, reducing the number of beneficiaries by a third.

Another bursary programme for 744 students to study for their first degree, previously tenable for undergraduate study at foreign institutions – with the exception of degrees in dentistry, medicine, pharmacy and architecture – has been restricted to public and private local universities under the revised budget.


Opposition politicians said this was “devastating” for those who already had offers to study overseas. “Most of them had offers to study at famous universities abroad,” Anthony Loke, national organising secretary of the opposition Democratic Action Party, or DAP, said in a statement Thursday.

“The government’s decision will force outstanding students to turn down those offers and lose the chance to study overseas, and [they will have to] look for other alternatives, including seeking other scholarships in other countries. That will lead to a brain drain and cost us our best human capital,” Loke said.

Another public scholarship programme for 8,000 undergraduate students will now only be tenable at local universities – but previously some 10,050 were to benefit, according to the DAP, and a large number of those would have gone abroad.

The prime minister’s announcement sparked an uproar, with the DAP criticising the prime minister for suggesting there would be no change to public scholarship programmes during his budget announcement, and calling for a review of the decision to cut the number of scholarships.

Many are worried that students currently overseas on government scholarships will not be able to continue, and others due to start at Australian universities, where the academic year begins on 1 February, are unsure whether they will be able to take up their places.

However, Najib also said there would be an additional allocation under the National Higher Education Fund Corporation, known by its local acronym PTPTN which issues loans to students.

Difficult decision

Wee Ka Siong, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, who is also deputy president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, said in a statement on Thursday that the decision to cut scholarships had been a difficult one.

“Our position is clear: we want to ensure that our gifted students enjoy the opportunity to further their tertiary studies.

“I do note that the adjustment is not a perfect solution. However, we wish to appeal for understanding and patience from those affected that this decision is a compromise the government must make given the difficult economic challenges brought on by external factors,” the statement said.

He said funding undergraduate studies abroad for all gifted 744 students was estimated to cost the government MYR1 billion (US$242 million).

“It had been determined that such an amount will exert unsustainable pressure on the government’s financial position at this time of global economic volatility,” Wee said.

All Public Service Department scholarships are awarded on academic merit. Students had become concerned in the days leading up to the budget announcement as applications for the scholarships had been suspended, with the application forms removed from the official website.